By Swapan Dasgupta
In Bollywood films of an earlier age, the penultimate scene invariably had the hero collaring the villain and beating him to a pulp till inept policemen lumbered in to intervene. These dhishum-dhishum scenes were extremely popular and would be met by loud clapping from the lower stalls.
The inclination to vanquish the bad guy cuts through cultures and is probably older than civilisation itself. The triumph of good over evil, of dharma over adharma resonates through the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Though the epics aren’t strictly religious and don’t dwell on the relationship of mortals with God, they have a profound contemporary influence. The Ramayana, in particular, has come to symbolise simple religiosity and ethics.
Throughout the past week there have been readings, enactments and sermons on the chequered life of the King of Ayodhya. The evening of Navami will mark the killing of the King of Lanka by Ram and Dussehra or Vijayadashami will celebrate the triumph of good over evil. In large parts of India, fierce effigies of Ravana, his son Meghnad and his obese brother Kumbhakarna will be ceremonially burnt.
The demonization of Ravana, the learned and fearless Brahmin who abducted a defenceless woman through guile and then shamelessly lusted after her, is understandable. Ravana, however, had legitimate reasons to wage war on the then-exiled Ram — for his attack on the 14,000 Rakshasa inhabitants of Janasthan, the killing of his vassals Khara, Dushana and Trishira, and most importantly, Lakshman’s humiliation of his sister Surpanakha. But Ravana violated the accepted tenets of statecraft by abducting Sita and tempting her to become his wife. Had Ravana chosen to take on Ram frontally in battle, he would not have been held guilty of adharma.
It is worth recalling that the relationship between Aryas and Rakshasas wasn’t bound in deep rivalry and racial antagonism; they shared the same civilisation. When Hanuman arrived in Lanka to find Sita, he was, according to Makhanlal Sen’s 1927 translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, ‘‘delighted’’ by its sights: ‘‘The highways of Lanka were broad and strewn with flowers... The city was crowded with the lofty mansions of the Rakshasas... Those houses were spotlessly white, decorated with floral leafs and built in the padma and swastika styles... In some houses, the Vedas were being read (and) their mantras chanted... At different places Rakshasas were singing Ravana’s praise...’’
The demonization of Rakshasas as uncivilised barbarians, the proverbial ‘‘other’’, is a subsequent perversion. What should have been a morality play involving two kings was transformed by simple prejudice and folklore into a clash of civilisations.
Each Dussehra reinforces the image of an ethnically fractured India. This is not on account of the destruction of the 10-headed Lankeshwar but the inclusion of Meghnad and Kumbhakarna in the rogues’ gallery.
The legend has it that Kumbhakarna was a fierce but harmless prince who miscued a boon from Brahma and had to sleep for six months to prevent his insatiable appetite from depopulating the plant and animal kingdoms. Ravana’s minister Mahodara described him as ugly, haughty, incapable of appreciating subtlety, saucy and garrulous from infancy. Yet, the Ramayana tells a tale of Kumbhakarna’s wisdom. On two different occasions, he berated Ravana for ‘‘neglecting good counsel’’ and told him bluntly ‘‘you have soon to reap the consequences of your wicked deed of abducting another’s wife.’’ Indeed, his speech to Ravana before embarking on his doomed mission is an enlightened treatise on statecraft.
At the same time, Kumbhakarna was unwavering in his commitment ‘‘to do what an affectionate friend is ready to do for his friend in distress.’’ Torn between his intellect and his sense of loyalty, he chose the latter. It’s a dilemma that many individuals have been confronted with and people have chosen differently. Did Kumbhakarna choose wrongly? Should he have gone the Vibhishana way and betrayed his brother? There are no easy answers, only one obvious conclusion: Kumbhakarna was not evil.
For the valiant Meghnad, also known as Indrajit, there was never any choice. To him, loyalty was paramount. He told the ‘‘villainous renegade’’ Vibhishana: ‘‘Friendship, pride in birth, feeling of brotherhood and religious sentiments do not govern thy conduct... If a stranger be accomplished, and one’s own people be without any accomplishments whatsoever, still a stranger is always a stranger and one’s own people always continue to be his own. He who abandons his own party and joins another, is doomed to ruin...’’
Over the centuries, popular opinion has sided with Indrajit. There are countless individuals named after the brave son of Ravana; Vibhishana’s name died with him. The man honoured by Ram for preferring dharma over his own King and people has become a byword for treachery.
And yet, paradoxically, every Dussehra, we gloat over the killings of Meghnad and Kumbhakarna. It isn’t quite right.